Tuesday, September 13, 2016

                                                                September 14, 2016


Interview with author Tom Wilmeth about his new book on music, 

Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening (Muleshoe Press, 2016)


Question:  Your new Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening book has a lot of Bob Dylan in it.  How are these essays different from what’s already out there?

Tom Wilmeth:  I try to look at a few unexplored topics.  I have a piece that examines the edits made to Dylan’s introductory remarks just before his “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” recitation on The Bootleg Series.

Question:  That sounds pretty obscure.  You mean you compare the released Bootleg Series version of the work to the unedited, unreleased recording?

Tom Wilmeth:  Right.  Some interesting things were cut from that introduction.  I also have an article that discusses Dylan’s use of different keys when playing songs in concert.  That’s one where I learned a lot about Bob’s ability as a musician.

Question:  How so?

Tom Wilmeth:  It gets pretty involved, but I’ll summarize by saying that Bob’s guitar skills are underrated.

Question:  What else do you cover in Sound Bites that relates to Dylan?

Tom Wilmeth:  I include my 1978 interview with Eric Weissberg, where I ask him about his involvement with Blood on the Tracks.  Both Weisberg and his band, Deliverance, had some interesting things to say about that session.

Question:  I assume you have the normal stuff like concert and CD reviews?

Tom Wilmeth:  Right.  Dylan concerts since 1974 and various album releases.  I also review some books that have fallen off most Dylan radars.

Question:  Such as?

Tom Wilmeth:  One by Dave Engel from 1997 jumps to mind, called Just like Bob Zimmerman’s Blues.  It goes deep in to Bob’s Hibbing days.  I spoke with the author, and he had really done his Hibbing homework.  Useful book.

Question:  And is Sound Bites a useful book?

Tom Wilmeth:  I believe that it is.  I think lovers of music will really enjoy it.  In addition to my pieces on Dylan, I have a detailed discussion of the history of Hank Williams’ releases, and a piece that praises 8-track tapes.  I include my interviews with jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, and concert reviews from Stevie Wonder to Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland to Dwight Yoakam to Yes.  It is a varied collection.

Question:  Back to Bob, as we wrap up.  Anything else distinctive about your book regarding Dylan? 

Tom Wimeth:  I guess I would say that Dylan’s presence permeates my writing about music.  There are pieces on specific topics, such as one that discusses jazz recordings of his songs.  But Bob Dylan has been so important to my musical life, he can’t help but appear throughout all the sections of my book.  And he does.

Tom Wilmeth’s new book is called Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening.  It is on the Muleshoe Press, and is available on Amazon.



Tuesday, July 26, 2016

July 26, 2016
I am back.  My book -- Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening -- should be available soon, on the prestigious Muleshoe Press.  Keep checking back.

In the mean time, here is a review of Lyle Lovett's recent concert at The Pabst:

Lyle Lovett and his Large Band                       
Pabst Theater
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
July 23, 2016
Review by Tom Wilmeth

The two words that repeatedly came to my mind during Lyle Lovett’s concert at The Pabst Theater on Saturday were “generosity” and “faith.”

This Texas native is the most generous of performers.  He would not need to carry a backing band of over a dozen musicians with him on tour.  That has to be expensive.  He would not need to make certain that each musician is featured – either within a tune or with an individual selection.  But Lovett does.  And his generosity extends to the audience, presenting them with two-and-a-half hours of excellent music. 

The generosity Lovett displays to those around him relates closely to the evening’s unmistakable theme of faith.  Joining the Large Band for part of each concert is a Gospel Choir, selected from a church in the community where the band is performing. 

After an instrumental “Blues Walk” that showcased the group’s piano, steel guitar, violin, acoustic bass, electric guitar, cello, and four-piece horn section – front man Lovett entered to sing three distinctively gospel-tinged selections: “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” “I Will Rise Up,” and Lovett’s own “Church,” a song about making a preacher so hungry that he stops preaching.

The set list contained many crowd pleasers, including “She’s No Lady,” “Here I Am,” “North Dakota,” and “That’s Right (you’re not from Texas).”  Francine Reed was given her own vocal spotlight on “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” and Luke Bulla played a fiddle tune, “The Temperance Reel,” with Lovett remaining on stage to observe in admiration.  But in spite of some individual solo spots, this was a concert of ensemble performances.  Drummer Russ Kunkel and acoustic bassist Viktor Krauss took few solos.  They instead seemed to be featured constantly, providing tasteful and interesting rhythmic backing for this night of varied music.

Similar to performances by Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett takes time during concerts to honor his own musical heritage.  He spoke of the recent loss of Guy Clark, and recalled an acoustic show that he and Clark had played at this same venue.  It seemed clear that the speaker was in awe of Guy Clark – as a musician, but also as a person.  Stories of their friendship preceded Lovett’s performance of Clark’s most introspective number, “Step Inside This House.” 

Later in the concert, Lovett described the importance of a favorite school principal who had recently died.  Lovett’s cousin asked Lyle to sing “I’ll Fly Away” at the principal’s funeral.  Initially crestfallen that one of his own songs had not been requested, Lovett complied.  He told the audience he soon realized that – even in death – this man was teaching him new things, for Lovett needed to learn the chord changes to this song before playing it at the funeral.

If any somberness lingered after “I’ll Fly Away,” it was quickly dispelled.  “Well,” said the performer, adjusting his capo to a very high fret, “We don’t do a lot of political songs, but we’ll do this one.”  And with that, Lovett went into the opening finger-picking pattern of “If I Had a Boat,” one of his best loved (and decidedly apolitical) numbers.  

As with the beginning of this concert, its conclusion also featured a trilogy of songs about faith.  The Gospel Choir returned, and the combined 20-piece ensemble of singers and large band instrumentalists performed “I’m Gonna Wait ‘til My Savior Comes for Me,” “Praise the Lord, Hallelujah, Going to the Place,” and (as the encore) “Savior, Hear My Humble Cry.”  As the Gospel Choir departed the stage for the last time, Lovett applauded and smiled, telling the audience:  “And you can hear them again tomorrow morning at church!”  It sounded to me like Lovett planned to be there. 


Friday, November 4, 2011

Tom Keith -- A Remembrance

Tom Keith – A Remembrance
Written by Tom Wilmeth
1 November 2011

I am weary of writing obituaries in 2011, and I don’t want to write this one. But I need to.

Tom Keith had a career at Minnesota Public Radio that spanned 4 decades. My own association with him lasted a mere 3 ½ years, from July 1980 to early 1984 -- my era at the station working as a Board Operator. And while I have not been in the same room with Tommy for a very long time, I remember him as well as if I had been drinking coffee with him last week. Maybe it’s because I could always hear his voice and check-up on him most Saturdays on A Prairie Home Companion. Which I did.

In recent years, I always knew the show was on tour when Garrison would fail to announce the name Tom Keith as the Sound Effects man at the end of a show. He once told me that his wife worried about him during the road trips. But it seemed to me that Tommy himself grew weary of the star trappings, and especially the touring, shortly after the PHC went national and became so widely embraced in the early 1980s.

I was at Minnesota Public Radio during a curious and perhaps pivotal time. I recall being in The World Theatre for the Saturday radio broadcasts when there seemed to be more performers on the stage than people in the audience. But soon, tickets would become so scarce that my regular balcony seat was needed for paying customers. So I was invited to work backstage instead, on the show itself.

Others have said it this week, but I want to echo that fact that Tom Keith brought a sense of calm to any situation, yet he was always the exacting professional. It was a balancing act that he made look easy. Tommy found humor in unpleasant situations, repeatedly diffusing workplace tension. At the same time, if some task was being shirked, he would be the person to let you know. I remember leaving some masking tape markings on a mixing console to remind me of audio levels. Tommy called me back to the control room and calmly made it clear that I needed to clean-up after myself. Never happened again – not from any fear, but from my respect for him.

It was a joy just to have a conversation with Tom Keith. Much has been made of Tommy’s sense of timing during the radio performances, but he was this way naturally. He regularly floored me not only with his fast rejoinders, but with a perfectly timed delivery that echoed an earlier era of comedians – Jack Benny, Bob & Ray, Johnny Carson. I think this combination of talent, attitude, and personality is why he could stay on Keillor’s A-List for such a long time. It seemed to me that Garrison could throw Tom into any situation and he could quickly adapt and make it work. And do so without ego or attitude – no small thing in any performance setting.

Tom always made me feel welcome and at ease, whether in the MPR studios or on one of my few road trips with the PHC. It was on such an outing to do a live broadcast in upstate Minnesota where I saw the respect that Tommy commanded on so many levels. He filled a unique position on the show as a performer, of course, but never acted the part of the Talent on this trip. He was chief roadie, technician, and van driver. And after this he would be ready to assist the actual show in all possible ways – sound effects, characters, anything that would help the broadcast -- on the air or at the mixing board.

I had known for some time that Tom was a really good guy, but it was on this trip that I could also see first-hand what a well rounded and tour-tested radio professional he was.
“Just stay out of his way when he is packing the van,” I was told. “Don’t try to help.”
“Why?” I asked. “He’s never seemed temperamental before.”
“It’s not that. The guy can pack 50 pounds of sh*t into a 40 pound bag.
Just watch and learn.”

I did watch, for over 3 years, but I could probably have learned a lot more from Tom Keith during my time with him. Tommy will be missed by the Minneapolis/St. Paul radio community and by all those who enjoyed his talent on the radio. I count myself lucky that I spent time with the man.

758 words

Thursday, July 14, 2011

CD Review: Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn – Small Source of Comfort (True North CD, 2011)
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
July 2, 2011

Bruce Cockburn’s latest release could be called a “best of,” but this term is reserved for previously released material. Let’s instead call it a “culmination,” for on his new Small Source of Comfort CD Cockburn is able to assimilate all that has been good in his catalogue since 1971.

Politics have not left the singer’s oeuvre, but neither has Cockburn’s sense of humor. Simultaneously fearless, bizarre, and compelling -- “Call Me Rose” is a first person narrative by Richard Nixon reincarnated as a single mother-of-two living in the projects. Accepting this strange premise prepares the listener for other surprises.

Perhaps more unexpected than Nixon’s transformation is that of Cockburn himself as he reassess his own long held views concerning war. Having recently seen Canadian casualties at Camp Mirage in the Middle East, Cockburn sings “Each One Lost” with an attitude reflecting far more sorrow than anger. This, from a man who may be best known for his revenge-soaked “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”

Cockburn’s love songs are still poignant and increasingly mature, which makes sense as the artist cruises past the 60-year mark. “Radiance” and “Boundless” both address physical love, but each also moves into different directions of spiritual and Jungian devotion.

Another form of love is found with “Lois on the Autobahn,” an instrumental work inspired by Cockburn’s late mother. Each of the CD’s five instrumentals serve as islands on which one can reflect on the album’s lyrics. Most were commissioned for, but not used in various film projects. I suspect that the reason a director would refrain from including these rich pieces is because none behave like background music. Each is strong enough on its own to compete with a film’s visual elements.

Small Source of Comfort closes with the brief ballad “Gifts,” used for years by Cockburn in concert as a final encore. The inclusion of this long withheld jewel makes it clear that the performer himself regards this CD to be a special release. Last year the government of Canada honored Bruce Cockburn’s career with a high profile concert broadcast from Toronto’s Massey Hall. This album demonstrates why such recognition is appropriate.

357 words

Book Review: Prince biography

Book Review:

Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution. By Jason Draper
Backbeat Books, 2011. 272 pp. $20
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
July 1, 2011

Must tremendous talent always be accompanied by startling strangeness? Perhaps not, but Jason Draper’s new biography of Prince portrays equal doses of prodigy and poser.

Draper does a good job of chronicling Prince’s rise from a Minneapolis basement studio to the world stage. The book also stresses Prince’s early awareness of the power of the Internet, only to later miss various web-based opportunities and ultimately to remove himself from cyber space. The infamous battle with Warner Brothers Records is recounted, and the reader can see why both artist and label could have had legitimate reasons for unhappiness.

One of the strengths of this biography is Draper’s meticulous discussion of Prince’s numerous early side-projects, many released under pseudonyms. Also tantalizing is the author’s description of Prince’s Vault in his Minneapolis home, where great unreleased jewels are said to reside. What undercuts the desire to open this Vault is found in the latter part of the book – if so much wonderful Prince material lies dormant, why does he insist on releasing unremarkable music at this point in his career?

Draper is not afraid to be critical of his subject’s career mis-steps, but the author also never loses sight of why Prince is worth an exasperated fan’s devotion: This is one very talented cat! The book is sometimes repetitive, but descriptions and assessments are clear and fair throughout. A useful Career Timeline appendix is included. A complete discography would have also been welcome, but such a list for this extraordinarily productive artist may have necessitated a second volume.

255 words

Essay: Portrait of Leigh Kamman

Portrait of Leigh Kamman – Jazz Broadcaster
Article written by Tom Wilmeth
June 27, 2011
First Published by JazzTimes on-line site, June 2011

Leigh Kamman is alive and well and living in Edina, Minnesota. Now recently retired from the airwaves, Leigh (rhymes with say) had been a fixture on jazz radio for many years before I met him. That was in the summer of 1980, while interviewing for a board operator position at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Leigh had caught-up with the person who was interviewing me to discuss a jazz event taking place that weekend in Minneapolis. Leigh’s program The Jazz Image was the late night show which the state-wide network of stations ran each Saturday from 10 P.M. until 4 on Sunday morning. It was a voice well known to me long before this meeting, and I quickly realized that this unerringly polite man was its source.

More striking than the familiar and well articulated speech patterns of this announcer was his professional attitude, clearly evident in his manner and his clothes. While most everyone I encountered in the halls of the radio station on that hot July day wore shorts, T-shirts, and sandals – Leigh Kamman had on a tailored 3-piece suit. Since this was a job interview for me, we were the only two in sight formally dressed. Leigh’s professional attire fit his voice perfectly and, as I think back on it, I’m not sure I ever saw him in anything but a suit and tie.

I landed the job and was soon fulfilling the various functions of radio station board operator. Before long, Saturday’s late night shift fell my way. Most thought this an unenviable position, but I was glad for the opportunity to serve as Leigh’s engineer. The near-empty station and Leigh’s jazz selections created a relaxed atmosphere compared with the frenetic pace of the broadcast day.

Leigh is a Minnesota native who spent some time in New York City in the early 1950s and then returned to St. Paul to work in radio and later for the 3M Corporation. That’s about all I knew about his past. His taste in jazz was a bit different than mine, but that was not surprising. Leigh was deep into Johnny Hodges and the big bands. I liked Paul Desmond and fusion. But to pigeonhole either of us by these narrow overviews would be a disservice, as I quickly came to see. As the weeks went by and my number of Saturday night shifts mounted, my interest in older jazz increased. Leigh played a mix of old and new, but largely stayed with the music of the 1940s and 1950s, which his listeners had come to expect.

As my father prized arrangements over solo virtuosity, I grew-up hearing Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman, and especially Glenn Miller. Leigh played a little of the Dorsey Brothers and less of Miller. He too liked Benny Goodman, but was even more interested in bands that I knew little about. I was aware of the bigger hits of Duke Ellington, of course, and had even participated in two high school jazz clinics run by Stan Kenton, but Leigh played material from these artists that I had never heard before. Deep catalogue stuff. I learned a lot about music on those Saturday nights, but was usually ready for 4 A.M. to roll around so I could start the syndicated Jazz Alive reels and head home to bed. It wasn’t until Leigh was assigned the task of recording individual jazz modules that my Master Class in Jazz Appreciation really began.

By the early 1980s, the Minnesota Public Radio empire had multiple FM stations positioned around the state and one AM station in St. Paul. I think the AM had been a donor’s gift, but it was sort of a white elephant for the place. We filled the signal with news and some simulcasting, but the FCC demanded that the station not just be a “repeater” of the FM signal. Leigh was asked to put together a series of one hour shows which could be run on the AM station at night. These were to be self-contained shows that would fill time while providing original content. Leigh agreed to come in to record these shows after his 3M day was over, and I volunteered to be his board operator.

We were well aware that these were production-line shows, cranking out 3 or even 4 of them a night if we could do them in real-time without stopping. “Sausage links,” is what Leigh called them, but he also knew that there was precious little space given to jazz on any radio station, so was glad for the opportunity to fill this void. He took the task very seriously. Because of repeats, these shows could ultimately have a larger audience than his Saturday night state-wide broadcasts.

Every module needed to be exactly 55 minutes in length in order to allow for the 5 minute newscast from AP at the top of each hour. No problem. We started with some basics, recording four hours on Louis Armstrong. Featuring only one artist per show, Leigh was able to give his listeners a well rounded musical portrait of each artist. While rolling tape in the control room, I learned of artists never heard in my youthful years – Jimmy Lunceford, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter. Fascinating material, with each selection back-announced by Leigh’s informative but concise commentary. Sometimes he was reading liner notes, sometimes jazz reference books, but most often he was giving information from his own knowledge of jazz and from years of living with the music.

Leigh was open to suggestion – direct or circuitous. At one break between tapings, I asked about baritone sax man Gerry Mulligan and his unexpected tenure with Dave Brubeck. After answering my question, Leigh decided that we would next do a series of Mulligan modules. Fine. I think we did 6 hours. I even provided a couple of albums. And then we did two more hours of lesser-known material by the classic Brubeck quartet. It was work for both of us, but simultaneously a luxury to be able to record as many shows as we wanted on whichever artists struck Leigh’s fancy.

We were in the studio when the wire services reported the death of Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. We assembled a 4-hour special on the great pianist that very night which was picked-up the next day by the NPR network and distributed nationally. Leigh had the knowledge and the recordings; I knew how to operate turntables and tape machines. We flew.

Leigh Kamman was successful in providing jazz to the Minneapolis/St. Paul region and beyond. As suspected from the first, those modules were aired frequently for a period of several years, but because there were so many of them we never had a listener complaint concerning duplication. Also, each hour would stand-up to repeated listening. This is because Leigh would play the well known material by an artist from the station’s music library, but he would also dig into his personal record collection and into that of his friend Ray Marklund. Together they would regularly come-up with fascinating recordings from deep within their own archives.

Leigh consistently kept the focus on the music, and never on himself. He had spoken to Duke Ellington on numerous occasions, first as a 17-year-old fan at a train station! But he wouldn’t think of dropping this fascinating nugget into a conversation in order to impress. I had worked with Leigh close to three years before I heard him mention, in-passing, about speaking with Charlie Parker. I froze at the tape deck with reel in hand. I asked him to expand a bit, but he drifted away to another subject.

It makes sense that Leigh would not stress his conversations with Charlie Parker. For one thing, hard bop was not his favorite form of jazz. And there weren’t a lot of upbeat aspects to address in Parker’s life during the 1950s, when they met. Leigh played Bird on the air, but not frequently. One time when I pressed him a bit, Leigh did say that he had talked to Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Oscar Pettiford. As I recall, Leigh said they were all together at his NYC apartment after their respective gigs. I asked Leigh if he had any overall remembrances of the conversation. He paused for a long while and then finally said, “They were all quite bitter about money.” “You mean,” I asked, “They felt cheated?” “Yes,” was all Leigh said, but this short response said worlds.

Leigh had very little to say about various musicians’ public struggles with substance abuse or their detrimental personality quirks unless these things had to do with the music itself. During his time in New York, I’m sure he had seen the darker side of the music alley up close and had no interest in lingering there.

If Leigh was a jazz fan first, he also knew the realities of the business side. He was slow to get involved with anything which might step on the rights of musicians, keenly aware that paying gigs were a professional musician’s life blood. I never knew Leigh to take a comp seat; this would hurt ticket sales and the bottom line for the performer. He was also very aware of who owned the rights to which recordings and was determined that no one was to be cheated out of a fair share. One night I showed Leigh a recent Joel Whitburn book which listed a record’s peak position and overall statistical performance on the Billboard Magazine charts. Leigh looked at it for a while and proclaimed it of limited use because it did not include the copyright holder for each song. Wow. But that’s what he wanted to know! Chart position and sales figures can be manipulated. Ownership is ownership.

Leigh was responsible for helping keep jazz not only on the airwaves but also on the stages of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Whether from weekly promotion on the radio or actual involvement with booking artists, he remained among the greatest supporters of jazz in the area. One time Leigh told me that an old friend from New York was coming to town and that he wanted the station to record his talk. I didn’t think much about it until he later casually mentioned that the name of his friend was John Hammond!

Some younger jazz aficionados – usually new to the genre – were critical of the playlist heard on the Saturday night show. True, it did not always reflect the latest trends, but that wasn’t because Leigh was unaware of them. I would regularly see him investigating the Minneapolis jazz scene – from locals like the Natural Life band and the talented Peterson family to touring individuals like Phil Woods, Howard Roberts, and Jon Hendricks. I saw him at Minneapolis’ famous First Avenue club when Wynton Marsalis first played there in 1981 -- checking-out the new young lions. Leigh was easily identifiable in the packed house by his suit and tie, the only one so dressed except the band. Just as with his radio show, he was drawn to the music. He had a very open mind and a broad musical perspective; but he also knew what would and would not work well on his weekly Jazz Image broadcast.

When the numbers were counted, we did a total of 187 modules and I worked at least 150 Saturday nights with Leigh. After that, the MPR network acquired a long sought-after deal with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the need to fill time became less critical. We would plug-into the CBC for long stretches. The modules project was suspended and even the length of Leigh’s Saturday night show was scaled back. Formats shifted.

In the fall of 1983 I made plans to depart Minnesota for Texas. I didn’t have direct contact with Leigh for several years after that. Even so, it was clear that he was keeping his ear to the ground. When I received an academic accolade, he sent congratulations through mutual friends. On the rare occasions when our letters did form a pre e-mail conversation, he was always encouraging me to return to radio – even going so far as to point out to jobs he thought appropriate. His confidence was encouraging, of course. But I left radio, in part, because I had already enjoyed the good fortune of doing everything in broadcasting that I wanted to do – things almost exclusively related to music. I would later have other fine teachers in various fields of study, but Leigh Kamman’s lessons on jazz and on personal grace have stayed with me the longest.

2,102 words

Tom Wilmeth

MPR retirement piece

Museum of Broadcasting link

Essay: Jazz in the Key of Bob

Jazz in the Key of Bob May 23, 2011
Article written by Tom Wilmeth
Published on the JazzTimes web site – The Wilmeth Wyvern

Bob Dylan turned 70 last week. That statement alone is a mind-bender. That he is still on the road more than 100 nights of the year is amazing. Yet it’s true. I noted with interest Rolling Stone magazine’s new issue, which celebrates Bob’s 70th birthday with a list of his best 70 songs, as chosen by their editors. The issue also contains lists of Bob’s most inscrutable lyrics (“Gates of Eden”) and what they consider overlooked jewels (“Dark Eyes”). These lists put me in mind of a tape I compiled ten years ago, for Bob’s 60th birthday. Inspired by the famous bootleg Elvis Presley’s Greatest Sh*t, my idea was to create a set-list of Dylan recordings that would make a hilariously bad collection.

It sounded like a fun plan, an inverted exercise in fan devotion, and so I set to work. I drew, of course, from the notorious 1970 double album Self Portrait and from various back-roads of the Dylan canon. My final list included such original jewels as “Wigwam,” “Billy 4,” “Handy Dandy,” and “New Pony.” The tape also featured Bob’s covers of “Let It Be Me,” “Froggy Went a-Courting,” “You Belong to Me,” and “This Old Man.” All officially released tracks.

But damn -- once completed, the tape was not the humorous artifact I had intended. I instead discovered what perhaps I had known from the start -- that even a set spotlighting Bob Dylan’s strangest odds & ends held interest, and that the very selections I had intended for comic value held up well to repeated listening.

One of the songs I included came from the 1970 album New Morning. This was supposedly the album that Bob quickly recorded after the debacle of Self Portrait in order to shore-up a sagging reputation and to appease stunned fans. The song I used was not chosen because I thought it to be bad, but because it was like no other in Dylan’s canon. “If Dogs Run Free” is as close as Bob himself has come to recording a jazz tune. The number is a spoken work of hipster monologue, a la Kenneth Rexroth. Scatting in the background behind Bob’s narrative is Maeretha Stewart, along with the single-note improvisations of Al Kooper’s tinkling piano accompaniment. I am not arguing here for Dylan to be viewed as a jazz artist, of course, in spite of this one-song genre exercise.

The reason “If Dogs Run Free” stood out for me is because the concepts of Jazz and Bob Dylan are not often linked. While not obvious matches, they are also not mutually exclusive. Dylan has certainly had songs that do not adhere to traditional folk, blues, or rock chord changes – his “Too Much of Nothing” is interesting for its ascending chromatic chords, while other songs from this same era, such as “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” and “Tiny Montgomery” each use only two chords.

Yet no matter the simplicity or complexity of the songs’ structure, few musicians seemed to have taken interest in arranging Dylan melodies for a jazz setting in the 1960s. This, even as Beatles’ melodies were making tentative inroads into jazz with albums like Basie’s Beatle Bag (1966) and George Benson’s The Other Side of Abbey Road (1970). Still, there were a few.

Among the first jazz renditions of Dylan’s material is Bud Shank’s 1963 release Folk & Flute, which included 3 songs credited to Dylan – “Quit Your Lowdown Ways,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Although a jazz player, Shank was apparently riding the still-expanding Folk Music wave, as he had previously done with albums of jazz arrangements of Brazilian, Bossa Nova, and Broadway music. As such, even with an album title with the word Folk in it, a quartet including Joe Pass on guitar, Charlie Haden’s bass, and session leader Shank on alto sax and flute, this LP must be seen as an outing for jazz musicians.

Perhaps surprisingly, baritone sax-man and cool jazz pioneer Gerry Mulligan was another established jazz musician to record Dylan early-on. In his tellingly-titled 1965 album If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em, Mulligan included an unusual, piano-dominant version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

The first full album of jazz arrangements of Dylan songs appears to be Dylan Jazz, from 1966. One can argue about whether these arrangements are truly jazz charts, but with high caliber session cats like a then-unknown Glenn Campell on guitar, Jim Horn on reeds, and Hal Blaine on drums – it makes for some interesting interpretations. Also of note, this album was co-produced by Leon Russell.

Like Shank’s inclusion of Dylan’s then-unreleased “Quit Your Lowdown Ways,” Dylan Jazz also includes an original which had not yet been issued by Dylan, “Walkin’ Down the Line.” I believe that this is a clear indication that these musicians are making some of their song choices from publisher’s lead sheets and not necessarily from listening to Dylan’s albums.

This same theory can also be used to demonstrate that Elvis Presley was not extremely familiar with Dylan’s actual recording of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” since Presley follows the published Witmark sheet music version of the song. As such, Elvis sings the verses in an incorrect order – inverting verses two and three as performed by Bob on the Freewheelin’ album. A big deal? Well . . . Yes! By the way – Dylan has said that his favorite cover version of any of his own songs is Elvis’ version of “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” a song that, like some jazz arrangements, was released before Dylan’s own recording of the song. This too indicates song selection chosen from sheet music over album awareness, just like other albums of Dylan songs interpreted by performers from Odetta to Sebastian Cabot. Honorable mention must go to the 1972 release Lo & Behold by Coulson, Dean, McGuiness, Flint. The album contains this quartet’s renditions of ten then-unreleased Dylan originals, three of which remain unreleased by Bob to this day!

Music genres were in the midst of radical and unprecedented cross-pollination in the mid-1960s. One who was quick to grasp the possibility was Willie Nelson, who in 1966 would slyly slip The Beatles’ “Yesterday” into a live set for a rough Houston crowd by introducing it as a song by “a little country quartet you may have heard of.” Two years later vibraharp virtuoso Gary Burton plays Dylan’s “I Want You” at his 1968 Carnegie Hall concert. After the melody is introduced by Burton and guitarist Larry Coryell, this brief number becomes a solo feature for bassist Steve Swallow.

Dylan’s melodies seemed to lend themselves well to bass features for Bob’s early jazz arrangers. The same year that Burton played “I Want You” with his quartet, Keith Jarrett’s 1968 live trio recording of “My Back Pages” also becomes a bass feature – again for Charlie Haden – on the album Somewhere Before. This take of “My Back Pages” was used by Vortex Records as the B-side of a Keith Jarrett single. The A-side is an instrumental studio recording of another Dylan song, “Lay Lady Lay.” The song did not chart, and Vortex failed to include it any of Jarrett’s albums.

It’s hard to know whether the pianist himself had any input on the release of either side of this single, but what is unmistakable is Jarrett’s appreciation of Dylan’s music and of his lyrics. In an 1987 interview for the NPR radio show Sidran on Record, Jarrett tries to express to host Ben Sidran some of the indefinable aspects of music. At one point he attempts to sum-up his feelings by quoting, “Beauty walks a razor’s edge.” He repeats the line and tells Sidran that this type of beauty is what he is trying to create at each performance and on every recording. “Beauty walks a razor’s edge” is a line from Dylan’s 1974 song “Shelter from the Storm,” whose imagery clearly had an impact on Jarrett.

The Dylan numbers selected by Burton and Jarrett are interesting choices. I recall talking between sets to Texas guitarist Jimmy Raycraft. His band had just performed an instrumental medley of Dylan’s “I Want You” and The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” I mentioned to Raycraft that the Bob song was a good choice for such a workout because Bob’s “I Want You” is so melodic. He immediately countered, “No man! It has no melody. That’s what makes it so great! All of those lyrics are sung on one note.” And after reflecting on this for a while, I saw that he might be right. He sure thought so. There are chord changes to the tune, and the bright accompaniment provided by Nashville’s studio A-team is infectious. But the memorable vocal passages of “I Want You” do not follow the melodic accompaniment.

In the late 1960s, Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett were among the young lions of jazz. They were arguably looking at music in a different way than their respected elder statesmen, most of whom were certainly not interested in Bob Dylan. Bassist Rob Stoner encountered this situation head-on when he accompanied Dylan to Chicago in December 1975 to be the closing act on the PBS special The World of John Hammond. The program was to bring together many of the music legends who Hammond had signed to Columbia Records. Among those performing on this two-part tribute were Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Milt Hinton. While Stoner does not get specific with names, he says that none of the jazz performers would even talk to him because he was associated with Bob’s band. These had been his “heroes,” laments Stoner, who was crushed by their collective snub.

It was rare for the old guard of any musical genre to embrace Dylan’s work in the 1960s. Flatt & Scruggs – the most famous of all bluegrass duos – broke-up their act because of Earl Scruggs’ fascination with Dylan’s songs. This may sound like an over-statement, but if Dylan’s music was not the cause for the split, it certainly embodied the different paths the two wanted to take. On their later albums, guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo master Earl Scruggs recorded enough Bob Dylan songs to fill a 60-minute tape. I know; I compiled one. Earl loved the new directions; Lester couldn’t relate. They parted.

No less a player than the great country guitarist Chet Atkins was never one to reject a melody because of genre. Atkins recorded instrumental versions of several Dylan compositions and even performed a medley of three Dylan tunes on a 1970 episode of Porter Waggoner’s syndicated television show. Atkins always seemed to have his ears wide open. I saw him play in St. Paul in the early 1980s, during one of his first visits to the Prairie Home Companion radio show. Seated alone on stage, he concluded tuning and said to the audience, “Well folks, you take a good song where you find it.” And with that he played a beautiful version of the recent #1 pop hit, “Heart of Glass” by Blondie. When I later spoke with Atkins, he voiced dismay over those among his fans who dismissed new music. Atkins had obviously held an unbiased view of melody for some time, as he recorded an instrumental version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” as early as 1965.

Another supremely gifted guitarist, Jim Hall, brings us full circle to jazz versions of Dylan songs. Unlike the late 1960s examples I cite from Gary Burton and Keith Jarratt, Jim Hall has released a 2008 recording of Dylan’s “Masters of War,” another jazz arrangement featuring bass, this time Bill Frizzell.

Known as a superlative wordsmith, it seems clear that Dylan has also worked hard on his melodies and song structures. In the first volume of his Chronicles autobiography, a somewhat defensive Dylan asks, “If my songs were just about words, then what was Duane Eddy, the great rock-and-roll guitarist, doing recording an album full of instrumental melodies of my songs?” Probably unaware of Duane Eddy, some jazz musicians would nonetheless soon follow his lead.

If most of the jazz community was slow to hear Dylan, he had certainly been listening to them. Also in Chronicles, Dylan remembers his early days in New York. “I’d listen to a lot of jazz and bebop records,” and to the arrangements of Gil Evans. “There were a lot of similarities between some kinds of jazz and folk music.” Dylan then lists several Ellington compositions, including “Tattoo Bride” and “Tourist Point of View” and concludes that, to him, “They sounded like sophisticated folk music.” It is also in this section where Dylan talks of the influence of jazz records by Roland Kirk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Christian’s sides with Benny Goodman. Living and working in an early 1960s New York City, Dylan attended various jazz clubs, being taken with the music of Thelonious Monk and speaking briefly with him. When Dylan introduced himself as a folk music performer, Monk would tell the young man from the Midwest, “We all play folk music.”

This article does not attempt to be comprehensive in its examination of Dylan jazz arrangements. Certainly many other artists of this genre have offered interpretations of Dylan’s work, from Duke Ellington’s recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to guitarist Michael Hedges’ cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” Surprisingly few jazz vocalists have waded in to this interpretive stream, although genre-crossing Janet Planet has recently released an entire CD of Dylan’s work. We should be surprised by none of these jazz interpretations. As Bob himself explains, “Musicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words, but most people are not musicians.”

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Tom Wilmeth